Aida tells a tale of war, nationalist loyalty and hatred of invading foreigners, all against the backdrop of a love story between an Ethiopian slave (Aida) and a general of the Egyptian army (Radamès). The Egyptian princess Amneris, herself also in love with Radamès, provides the hurdles the lovers must overcome to fulfill their love – in death, of course.

Katarina Dalayman (Amneris) and Christina Nilsson (Aida)
© Markus Gårder

The production by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh moves the action to a modern, stylized era, where the soldiers are armed with automatic weapons and assault gear, the priests are in minimalistic white robes, and Amneris wears slick, shiny gowns reminiscent of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Cavanagh, without distorting the original plot, rejected the decadent, dated orientalism and, in place of the dances, he inserted scenes that applied a more modern sensibility. In Act 2, for example, where the handmaidens are supposed to dance for the amusement of Amneris, they are instead portrayed as what they were: slaves, who clean the floor and throw soap foam at each other for laughs. The most poignant of these diversions occurs during the victory celebration, the famous Triumphal Scene. Here the dancing is replaced by Radamès having flashbacks of the war he had just won, recalling the blood, killings, torture of prisoners, recoiling in shock and horror. This gives the character of Radamès more depth than we are used to seeing. Or rather, it would have, if young tenor Ivan Defabiani had been given sufficient stage direction and hadn’t been left to his own devices to work out how to express shock and horror.

The scenography by Magdalena Åberg was empty, with large volumes rising or descending, so that at times the characters’ entrances were in the vertical dimension. Scenes involving the clergy always had a brilliant golden colour, while the third act, near the Nile, had beautiful blue waves in the background. At crucial moments, black panels arranged as an aperture covered most of the stage, zooming in and out to focus on particular details – a highly effective cinematographic technique.

Ivan Defabiani (Radamès) and Katarina Dalayman (Amneris)
© Markus Gårder

Pier Luigi Morandi gave an emotional reading of the score, with brisk tempi and good support for the singers. The Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra has rarely sounded more Italian than on this occasion, while the chorus turned in one of the most successful performances of the evening, singing with precision, varied dynamics, and perfect Italian pronunciation.

The cast featured the debut of Christina Nilsson in the first major role of her career. Aida is a complex character, very challenging musically, and Nilsson approached it with no hint of fear. Her voice is well set, strong and secure on the top, capable of overpowering the whole chorus and orchestra in the Act 2 finale but, at the same time, of producing the most tender filati. Her high C in “Cieli azzurri” was bright, clear and silverish: a thing of beauty. Her inexperience came through in other aspects of her performance, however, such as a tendency to rush the tempo at times and a certain awkwardness in her acting.

Radamès was young Ivan Defabiani, whose tenor was generous and bright, but suffered from some emission problems at times, which caused a certain lack of uniformity in the timbre and a general lack of legato. He managed “Celeste Aida” reasonably, and his performance improved as the evening progressed. In his case, as in Nilsson’s, some direction would have helped. The singers seemed abandoned, and their lack of experience did not help in producing credible, emotionally charged acting. The director seemed very careful in designing the choreography for the ensembles’ gestures, but much less interested in the psychological development of the characters.

Katarina Dalayman (Amneris)
© Markus Gårder

Veteran Katarina Dalaymann, as Amneris, was much more at ease on stage and managed to create a three-dimensional, jealous, arrogant, desperate princess. Her voice, however, was not ideally suited to the Italian style, and she was breathing much more often than the legato requires. Overall, her performance was powerful and engaging.

Lennart Forsén, as the King, was hindered by clumsy Italian pronunciation and slight intonation problems in the beginning, while both Johan Edholm, as Amonasro, and Alessio Cacciamani, as Ramfis, gave life to their characters with convincing acting and more than competent singing.